Comment: Former Virgin Blue PR executives to sue airline

On the eve of the start of John Borghetti’s re-launch of Virgin Blue, Maurice Blackburn Lawyers have announced they will “soon commence Federal Court action” on behalf of two former Virgin Blue public relations executives who say they were wrongfully dismissed shortly after Borghetti took office.

Here is what you need to know: this is convoluted and neither side is likely to face the facts.

What the case will come down to–either in court, or private settlement discussions–is if proper procedure was not followed and the women were discriminated against or if their termination was part of the business cycle, no matter how unfair or ruthless it may seem.

A Fair Work Australia mediation conference held earlier this month between the parties failed to resolve the claims, a statement from Maurice Blackburn says.

As Maurice Blackburn tells it, the circumstance of the incident is that the two women, who have asked not to be named, were forced to take redundancy after confirming they were pregnant or were returning from maternity leave.

The PR team turnover started one week into Borghetti’s tenure last year when he announced on 13 May that Danielle Keighery would replace Heather Jeffery as general manager of public affairs effective 17 May. From there, and with hindsight, it is easy to see the future was short for the old eight-member PR team. Of the eight, four were dismissed, one was transferred out of the the department, one still remains, and I’m not clear on the remaining two.

The first plaintiff, “Client One”, advised Jeffery on 3 May last year she was pregnant, according to a statement by Maurice Blackburn. In late May Keighery “advised Client One that they didn’t really know what Client One’s role was”, the statement says. On 1 June a performance review conducted by Client One’s immediate supervisor (not Keighery) rated Client One as “highly effective” with no performance issues identified.

Client One’s role was slowly curtailed in June, including not attending meetings for projects she had been working on. Finally on 30 June a new team structure was announced. Client One’s position was not included. Client One met with Keighery and human resources to be told “her role is redundant and there were no suitable positions that would suit her ‘specialist’ skills”, the statement says. She was terminated the following day.

Client Two on 31 January last year agreed to increase her work to 35 hours a week after returning from maternity leave. The day after Keighery officially joined the company, she advised Client Two that part-time work was not available and Client Two would have to go back to maternity leave until 10 July. On 28 June Keighery and human resources called Client Two and advised her that her position was no longer available and she would be made redundant.

Maurice Blackburn principal Terri Butler says Virgin Blue did not follow its own redundancy policy that, the statement says, requires the airline to speak with affected employees prior to making a decision about their role being made redundant. The policy also requires alternate employment opportunities be sought. The women were not consulted before decisions were made about their roles being made redundant, the statement says.

Later, “two positions with the same job title as Client Two’s role were advertised and subsequently recruited for.”

Butler says Clients One and Two were “exposed to inappropriate comments about their physical appearance when pregnant”. They also heard comments from executive management, including that “all females should be on contracts so that when they get pregnant it is easy for the company to get rid of them”.

What Maurice Blackburn does not say is that the dismissal of the two women coincided with a management shake-up following John Borghetti replacing Brett Godfrey as chief executive. As with any CEO change, there was turnover. In addition to these PR executives, members of senior management were dismissed, ranging from V Australia general manager Scott Swift to CFO Keith Neate (who left last month but will reportedly, if peculiarly, be at the carrier’s half-annual results Wednesday afternoon).

These management changes were no coincidence, sources familiar with the situation say. Early on Borghetti in staff meetings showed a disdain for management aspects of Godfrey’s Virgin Blue. He wanted, sources say, to disaffiliate his new Virgin Blue from the old Blue and Godfrey himself. To do that, he saw it necessary to remove all who were close to Godfrey. This was because they were either creating what Borghetti disliked or they might be resistant to change.

Suffice to say, the dismissed male employees were not pregnant. Nor was Jeffery and other dismissed female employees.

I am not here to pass judgment on the effectiveness of the old management or the capabilities of those who are no longer with the company. Capabilities, after all, are not being called into question for Clients One and Two.

If Borghetti and Keighery did not want to work with a range of employees including Clients One and Two, they are obviously entitled to that as long as they follow their own HR guidelines for appropriate notification and remuneration (I’m not privy to that information).

But Borghetti and Keighery should not be hiding behind false explanations.

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